Ultraflex jobs: You choose hours, venue

Some companies even let you decide how much time off to take. The result is more productive workers, not less.

Phil Marden

If long hours at the office are ruining your personal life – or 9-to-5 just seems too robotic – take heart: There's a whole new way to work. Call it the ultraflex job.

Consider the deal at Ryan LLC, a Dallas-based accounting firm that employs 900: Since 2009, professional employees have been able to work anywhere, anytime, as long as their tasks get done. Support personnel do have to report to the office to keep the place humming. Still, they coordinate schedules with each other and with supervisors.

"Companies that cling to traditional approaches to managing the workforce are already behind the curve," says Delta Emerson, Ryan's chief organizational development officer and leader of the team that created the three-year-old program, called myRyan.

At DMC Athletics & Rehabilitation, 95 percent of staff members make their own hours, and employees enjoy unlimited vacation, reports David Cunic, the founder and president of the 14-person physical therapy facility, based in Cedar Knolls, N.J.

Performance bonuses, which averaged $4,800 per staffer last year, help prevent abuse of DMC's innovative structure, Mr. Cunic says. "We're not here to baby-sit," he says. "You get your work done and go home."

To be sure, firms like Ryan, DMC, and others may be extreme examples of flexible work cultures. But in today's worldwide marketplace – with advances in technology, changing demographic needs, and the drive to cut costs – ever more firms are ditching the 9-to-5 routine for a new and more independent form of work.

"I don't know how you work 9-to-5 anymore" in today's global market, says Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader at WorldatWork, a global human resources association based in Scottsdale, Ariz. "For many employers and employees, an individual way of working is happening already."

Although the recession may be causing a temporary dip in telecommuting, according to a recent WorldatWork survey, the number of firms offering the option has jumped. Some 63 percent of organizations now offer some kind of telecommuting, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). That's up eight percentage points in a year. Moreover, 20 percent of organizations now allow full-time telecommuting, up from 17 percent last year.

Workplace flexibility is no novelty for top executives and certain professionals. What's changed, experts say, is that such perks are being extended to the entire workforce.

Take the case at BDO USA, a Chicago-based accounting and consulting firm with 2,500 employees. In a strategy called BDO Flex, begun five years ago, individuals suggest arrangements that fit their needs and the firm's, says Barbara Taylor, the firm's BDO Flex chair and general counsel. Beyond minor day-to-day changes in a work schedule, employees can adopt yearlong flex arrangements: If they log, say, 50- to 60-hour weeks during the busy tax season, they can trim that back to, perhaps, 20 to 30 hours per week the rest of the year – with proportional adjustments in pay. Moreover, 85 percent of the workforce telecommutes, mainly part time, says Ms. Taylor.

Administrative staff also can suggest work setups. At one BDO office, for example, staff got approvals for a rotating compressed workweek that gave them alternating Fridays off. It has "improved morale among the administrative team while extending administrative coverage for the office and decreasing overtime costs," notes the 2011 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work, copublished by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) and SHRM (which also profiled Ryan, DMC Athletics, and MeetingMatrix).

Certainly, overhauling work structures was expensive, acknowledges BDO's Taylor, who doesn't specify how much this "very worthwhile" investment cost. Moreover, major changes can be unsettling, experts say: Not only can they confuse some employees but can also worry some bosses, who fear employees may slack off if they work remotely.

"Initially, we worried that some employees might take advantage" of myRyan, says Ms. Emerson. But quite the opposite occurred, she says. Since the advent of that program – aimed at enhancing Ryan's ability to attract and retain valued employees – morale and productivity have climbed. As the days of rigid hours and 50-hour workweeks disappeared, voluntary employee turnover plunged – from about 18 percent annually to about 8 percent, less than half the 20.5 percent industry average, says Emerson. Moreover, "clients' ratings of us have been higher than ever and revenue is better than ever," she says.

At softwaremaker MeetingMatrix International, employees can decide on their amount of paid time off – such as sick days and vacations. The 60 staffers also can choose when and where to work. Indeed, Jmichaele (pronounced jay-michel) Keller, chief executive officer of the Portsmouth, N.H., firm, lives in the Netherlands.

But this structure, called Task Inspired Management Environment (T.I.M.E.), put in place in 2009, hasn't made the workforce invisible: At any given time, "there's maybe 25 people in the office," says Don Basler, senior marketing manager for the company, which makes floor-plan software used for events at hotels and convention halls. "I absolutely enjoy going into the office every day. It has to do with the creative management team here. It's a blast."

Evidently, MeetingMatrix is still innovating: According to Mr. Basler, the company is now implementing "tribal leadership" – a program aimed at maximizing employee empowerment, individual growth, and productivity.

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